Less talk, more focus: Raiders' second-year 'rookie' Johnathan Abram returns at safety

Johnathan Abram is basically a second-year "rookie" after playing in only one game last season. Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire

HENDERSON, Nev. -- It was, to borrow a phrase, a kinder, gentler Johnathan Abram who addressed the media in the waning days of Las Vegas Raiders training camp.

Demure, almost.

The trademarked braggadocio was nowhere to be seen. No debates over salmon or SAL-mon. No getting into quarterback Derek Carr's wallet. No over-the-top sound bites about blowing people up on the field. No overexposure, like the media tour he went on last winter and spring that kinda, sorta tweaked the Raiders' front office and coaching staff.

No, this was a more zeroed-in Abram. A veteran with less than one game of NFL experience under his belt. A focused heat-seeking missile in the secondary. Not a Scud in uniform who targeted the first heat signature he registered, laid out a teammate in Gareon Conley -- who had to be taken off on a stretcher -- and then blew up his own shoulder in his first professional game.

What's that, again, about still waters?

"The best ability is availability," the more introspective Abram said recently. "So, just making sure I stay healthy. And just being a smarter player this year. That's my biggest concern this year."

And there it is.

"The biggest thing I'm looking forward to," Abram continued, "is just being out there with my teammates and helping the guys get a couple wins and get to the playoffs and do what we need to do to turn this thing around."

Abram was a first-round pick of the Raiders -- the third of three first-rounders behind defensive end Clelin Ferrell and running back Josh Jacobs -- a year ago for a reason.

And after essentially missing all of last season, the No. 27 overall pick of the 2019 draft, acquired from the Dallas Cowboys in the Amari Cooper trade, is essentially one of the Raiders' three first-rounders this year, along with receiver Henry Ruggs III and cornerback Damon Arnette.

Abram's designation had Ferrell giggling.

"If people would consider that fool a rookie, yeah," Ferrell laughed, his voice trailing off.

"He looks healthy; he looks fast. Obviously, he's always been a smart player. He looks confident out there. I'm just ready for him to get back out there when we get pads on and show his stuff, just get back into the swing of things. Obviously, it was tough last year getting hurt the first game and missing the whole season. I'm excited. He's going to do really, really well."

If nothing else, Abram will be a key part of a secondary trending extremely young. Trayvon Mullen, a second-round pick last year, will start at one cornerback spot, and the rookie Arnette figures to be at another, with Abram at strong safety and Erik Harris -- who is entering his fifth NFL season, his fourth with the Raiders -- at free safety.

The rest of the secondary: CBs Keisean Nixon (second year), Isaiah Johnson (second year) and Amik Robertson (rookie) and safeties Dallin Leavitt (third year, 17 games total), Lamarcus Joyner (seventh year overall, second with Las Vegas) and Jeff Heath (eighth year overall, first with Las Vegas).

After a pseudo-medical redshirt freshman season in which he got five tackles and a pass defensed in that opener against the Denver Broncos, Abram's yearlong marination has yielded improvement in two key areas.

"His understanding of the defense, No. 1," said Raiders coach Jon Gruden. "No. 2, I think he's becoming a better communicator, which you have to be in the back end. I mean, you have to be able to recognize splits, formations, know the situation and communicate that to those around you. So, I think his communication is better.

"He's more experienced and has more knowledge of our defense. And we're hoping we can create an identity on that side of the ball centered around a bunch of young guys. So, he's a key, no doubt."

And as Abram said, the main key is being on the field. Especially Sunday at the Carolina Panthers with their do-everything running back Christian McCaffrey and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

And when he's on the field, he's also sporting a new style -- throwback long sleeves that hearken the likes of the late Willie Brown.

"I mean, it was more so for the old-school look," Abram said, "and also because it helps me be able to move my arms a little bit better. Especially coming off a reconstructive surgery with my shoulder.

"This is definitely my rookie season. I did not play anything but one game. So, what we consider in the DB room, you have to play a full season and three games after that until you're not considered a rookie. So, as far as physically, I mean, I'm still considered a rookie. But mentally, I mean, I was never even a rookie. I showed up, I was a part of the 11 guys. A part of the defense out there just trying to do my job to the best ability I can do it."